A group of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation experts is warning the Canadian government that its investment to kick-start a small nuclear reactor program could reignite an arms race and threaten the environment.
In an open letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week, the experts wrote that they understand the government’s motivation to support nuclear power and to reduce fossil fuel use, “but saving the world from climate disaster need not be in conflict with saving it from nuclear weapons.”
The warning comes after New Brunswick start-up Moltex Clean Energy received $50.5 million from the Government of Canada to advance its plans for a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) — reactors that deliver 300 megawatts or less — that would double as a spent fuel reprocessing facility. (Spent fuel are the fuel bundles that can no longer sustain fission in a nuclear reactor.)
Frank H. von Hippel, a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, told Glacier Media the government’s move to back the SMR flies in the face of its non-proliferation commitments.
Those commitments date back to the 1970s, when a joint Canadian, U.S. and Indian nuclear technology agreement inadvertently jump-started the subcontinent's nuclear weapons program.
The concern, said von Hippel, is that other countries will witness Canada reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and see it as a green light to follow suit. That could lay the groundwork for a new nuclear weapons race.
“People have forgotten after all these years,” said von Hippel, pointing to similar projects underway in the U.S. “For those two countries to tear it down for no good reason would really be heartbreaking.”
In their letter, the U.S. experts refute Moltex’s claim that the removal of plutonium and other elements from spent nuclear fuel “would reduce the long-term risk” from burying radioactive materials deep underground.
“That claim has been discredited repeatedly,” they write, adding that radioisotopes with 17-million-year half-lives, like iodine-129, would remain in the radioactive waste “if not released to the environment during reprocessing.”
In an email to Glacier Media, a spokesperson for Moltex Clean Energy said the company is “open and transparent” and will take expert reviews over safeguards and security seriously as it moves toward testing and deploying its nuclear reactor.
“We do not agree that Canada should be pressured into a certain direction by foreign nations or foreign individuals,” wrote the spokesperson. “The current proposals are in line with all international protocols. Civilian reprocessing is up to each country to assess and pursue if they so choose, as long as it is under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.”
The spokesperson added that the anti-proliferation experts are not aware of the company’s WAste To Stable Salt process, as few details have been released. “It has been designed without the ability to produce weapons-grade material,” she wrote.
That process would convert high-level radioactive waste into carbon-free energy instead of disposing of it in the ground, said the spokesperson.
In the end, she noted, if the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission “agrees it is safe and grants us a licence, we will provide a means to significantly reduce the volume and radioactivity of high-level nuclear waste in Canada. We will also help mitigate the impacts of climate change and support the drive to net-zero by generating low-cost, emissions-free energy.”
The rise of small nuclear reactors
The push to develop small modular nuclear reactors has gained steam in recent years.
Von Hippel, who also worked as the U.S. Assistant Director for National Security during the Clinton administration, said it grew out of two waves of industry lobbying government for a nuclear renaissance. The first, from people looking to up sales for companies that build reactors for submarines and aircraft carriers; the second, from companies like Moltex, which promised to solve governments’ plutonium disposal problem.
In Canada, about 15 of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear power. That’s a roughly 14% decline from its peak in 1993.
When Ontario Bruce and Darlington nuclear plants tendered proposals to extend the life of several of their traditional reactors, the price tag came in at $26 billion. Meanwhile, plans to build several new reactors across Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta have either been deferred or lapsed.
“The R&D community looked around and said, ‘The reactors currently available for sale aren’t selling,’” said von Hippel.
At the current rates of closure, the world would lose almost a quarter of its nuclear-power capacity by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Most of those closures are planned in G-20 countries, where eye-watering upfront costs are largely being swallowed by countries like China and India desperate to boost energy capacity and drive down air pollution.
In countries like Canada and the U.S., those prohibitive upfront costs have pushed the industry to pitch small reactors, said von Hippel.
As M.V. Ramana, a nuclear energy expert and professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy, put it: “It’s the only kind of nuclear reactor that might actually get built. They won’t have a hope in hell in building a larger reactor.”
Is nuclear an essential ingredient to fight climate change?
Companies like Moltex have made some other attractive promises.
When the government announced it would back Moltex’s plan, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne said the small nuclear reactor “will play a critical role in fighting climate change and will boost Canada’s economic stabilization after the pandemic.”
It’s a vision that lines up with some of the world’s most influential voices on energy.
Earlier this month, International Energy Agency released the landmark report Net Zero by 2050, which traced a path to a net carbon-free future.
According to the report, within 30 years, most of the world’s energy would need to come from renewable sources like wind and solar if the planet had a hope of staving off 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming — the threshold scientists say would lead to irreversible change to the word’s climate.
But the agency, which has advised governments around the world since its inception in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, also said nuclear energy would play a big role, nearly doubling its energy output between 2020 and 2050.
That kind of thinking has led Alberta to join Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan as signatories in a memorandum of understanding on SMRs in April.
“Alberta has always been committed to clean, affordable energy," said Alberta Premier Jason Kenney in a written statement at the time. “Small modular reactors are an exciting new technology that could be used in the future to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, for example by generating power for Canadian oilsands producers.”
Small nuclear a path to ‘greenwash’ dirty oil?
Not everyone agrees with Kenney’s vision of a nuclear future.
“The claim is they’re going to power these SMRs to power tar sands extractions,” said Ramana, the UBC nuclear energy expert.
“It’s just a way to kind of greenwash what they’re doing in the tarsands.”
Ramana said ramping up nuclear energy doesn’t make sense as a viable path to reducing emissions. IEA predictions on the future cost of energy, he said, have failed before.
“In the earlier years of the nuclear age, the expectation was that energy might come down in the future,” he said. “It’s become clear that the cost (of nuclear electricity) is going to be expensive.”
“Small nuclear reactors aren’t going to change any of that,” he added.
It’s not just the rising per-unit energy cost of nuclear energy that worries experts like Ramana.
It can take decades to plan, approve and build a nuclear power plant; a small nuclear reactor proposed for Idaho in 2003 isn’t expected to go online until at least 2030.
Simply put, critics say, heading off the worst effects of climate change can’t wait that long‚ and that’s not even considering the ecological and human fallout should a fire or earthquake hit a nuclear facility.
“A nuclear reactor is just a very complicated way to boil water,” said Ramana. “Solar and wind just make a lot of sense. Economically, they’re the most justifiable thing.”
Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everywhere in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email email@example.com.